History of Freemasonry

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The Two Grand Lodges - Unification - Consolidation and Growth

In the 1740s there was a growing number of Irishmen in London, many of whom had become Freemasons before leaving Ireland. For reasons now unknown they appear to have had difficulty gaining entrance into Lodges in London, so in 1751 a group of them formed a rival Grand Lodge. They claimed that the premier Grand Lodge had made innovations and had departed from 'the ancient landmarks' whereas they claimed to be working 'according to the old institutions granted by Prince Edwin at York in 926CE'. For this reason they became known as the 'Antients' and referred to their older rival as the 'Moderns'.

Despite their differences, the two Grand Lodges co-existed both at home and abroad for nearly 63 years, neither recognising the other or considering each others members as 'regular' Freemasons. Even at the centre, however, there were those who were active in both Grand Lodges.

In 1799 Freemasonry almost came to a halt. In the wake of the French Revolution a number of Acts of Parliament had been passed in an attempt to curb trade unions, political clubs and other 'subversive' organisations. The 1799 Unlawful Societies Act banned any meetings of groups which required their members to take an oath or obligation.

The Earl of Moira (Acting Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge) and the Duke of Atholl (Grand Master of the 'Antients' Grand Lodge) called on the Prime Minister William Pitt (not himself a Freemason) and explained to him how Freemasonry was a supporter of the law and lawfully constituted authority, and was much involved in charitable work.

As a result Freemasonry was specifically exempted from the terms of the Act, provided that each lodge secretary once a year lodged with the local Clerk of the Peace a list of the members of his lodge together with their ages, professions and addresses. That provision continued until 1967 when it was rescinded by Parliament.

In 1809 the rival Grand Lodges appointed Commissioners to negotiate an equable Union. The negotiations took four years to complete but on 27th December 1813 a great ceremony was held at Freemasons’ Hall in London, at which the two Grand Lodges (the Antients and the Moderns) combined to form the United Grand Lodge of England with HRH The Duke of Sussex (younger son of King George III) as Grand Master. The Union was a time of consolidation and standardisation, setting the basic administration of Freemasonry – which continues to this day. Lodges outside London were grouped into Provinces, based on the old Counties, each headed by a Provincial Grand Master appointed by the Grand Master.

A Board of General Purposes was introduced to formulate internal policy and to inquire into and report on any matters referred to it by the Grand Master or Grand Lodge. It had no executive power but could only report to Grand Lodge, which reserved to itself the ultimate power of decision. Standard patterns for regalia and jewels were introduced, which are still in use today.

The 19th century was a period of consolidation and expansion for English Freemasonry. The move away from the country to the growing industrial and manufacturing towns and cities led to a growth in the number of urban lodges. The growth of the railway system led to greater mobility and easier communication between the Grand Lodge and the Provinces. The growth of the number of lodges in urban centres led to the development of imposing Masonic Halls, many of which survive today.

The election of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) as Grand Master in 1874 gave great impetus to Freemasonry. The Prince was a great supporter of and publicist for Freemasonry. He regularly appeared in public, both at home and on his tours abroad, as Grand Master laying the foundation stones of public buildings, bridges, dockyards and churches with Masonic ceremonial. His presence ensured publicity and reports of Masonic meetings at all levels appeared regularly in the national and local press. Freemasonry was constantly in the public eye and Freemasons were known in their local communities. From 637 lodges in 1814, the Grand Lodge had grown to 2,850 lodges when the Prince resigned the Grand Mastership on becoming King in 1901.